It is December 31, 2017. I spent a little of this afternoon studying charities—their impact, alignment with my values, efficiency ratings, etc.—ultimately deciding on those that I would make part of my monthly giving for 2018. Final vote went for International Rescue Committee, Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition (CCJRC), Charity: Water, African Library Project, and Words Beyond Bars.
There are tons of noteworthy charities and nothing particularly noble about the ones I’ve chosen—at least not in comparison to anyone else’s list; we’re all doing what we can and what makes the most sense to us. What is more interesting to me than the list itself, is the disposition through which I’ve entered a relationship with any of the organizations. A couple were simply a friend’s touch of a “like” button on Facebook. Charity: Water and International Rescue Committee came to me, initially, as curiosities in my Facebook feed. What’s important to my friend who “liked” this? Then, following the links and the stories, I learned about powerful organizations through which people in need of clean water, people in need of hope in the face of the most extreme violence and loss, find health, safety, and possibility.
In the case of CCJRC, my co-teacher and I were developing a 9th grade literature unit around the short story, “The Most Dangerous Game” by Richard Connell. We wrote guiding questions related to themes of human predator-prey relationships as they exist in American society and explored related current events. Unchecked capitalism is predatorial by definition, so it wasn’t a hard climb, but we hoped to find something local that our students would be more likely to understand and engage with. In one of our morning planning sessions, my sweet friend and colleague said to me, “Look what I found last night.” It was the CCJRC website that offered us statistics on criminal justice and its profiteering implications in Colorado. But the site didn’t stop with the ugliness of human exploitation; it offered a story of compassion and refuge as the organization sought to restore dignity and humanity to ex-convicts through various structures and resources.
Then the African Library Project that has my little sister’s fingerprints all over it… Since serving as a Peace Corp volunteer in Lesotho, she’s been part of a system that organizes libraries for readers across Africa, placing books in the hands of students of all ages who would otherwise have sparse opportunities for connecting with the written word. In 2011, she recruited me… then I recruited my students and administration through which we collected a whole bunch of books that we combined with a collection my older sister obtained through her church, and, together, we made a complete library. Elder sis and Mom braved blizzardous conditions in December of that year, driving from Texas to Colorado to pick up the books then back to my brother-in-law who drove the books on to New Orleans, the shipping site.
Between family and friends and the creators of each organization, it was a collaborative spirit of love and compassion that gave birth to these amazing connections and opportunities to participate in the humanity of those both near and very far away. And participating in theirs, I find inroads to my own. But nowhere did I find myself in the strength and fragility of another human being more profoundly than when I was invited to a “Write Night” hosted by a sweet friend and mentor.
In her home, a group of women met the founder of Words Beyond Bars, Karen Lausa, who spoke humbly and passionately about the work of the organization that brings inmates together around book readings and discussions, around poetry and the creative freedom represented in the form. Our work for the night, beyond listening and learning, was responding to the poetry the inmates themselves had written, inmates likely to spend most of their lives incarcerated. It was a strangely intimate connection to the writers, devoid of eye contact, where we experienced voices that rang humorous and tender and hopeful. And when asked our thoughts at the end of it all, I could offer only, “It could be me.”
Born to different parents in a different body in a different time and place, I am Eric Garner and the police officers who killed him; I am the police officer who lost his life in the line of duty and the domestic abuser who shot him; I am Harvey Weinstein and the women he exploited; I am a Syrian and Myanmar and Afghanistan refugee and I am the perpetrators of violence against them; I am Donald Trump.
There is no us and them–there is only us and us.
So what am I to do? How do I respond to the ugliness of this world with the understanding that any of its representations could be me?
I’m reading a book, The Seat of the Soul. Writer, Gary Zukav, says this: “Understanding evil as the absence of Light does not require you to disregard evil actions or evil behavior. If you see a child being abused, or a people being oppressed, for example, it is appropriate that you do what you can to protect the child, or to aid the people, but if there is not compassion in your heart also for those who abuse and oppress—for those who have no compassion—do you not become like them? Compassion is being moved to and by acts of the heart, to and by the energy of love. If you strike without compassion against the darkness, you yourself enter the darkness.”
And Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “Let no man pull you so low as to hate him.”
So as the cacophony of fireworks and car horns and human cheering and dogs barking signal the coming of something new, here’s hoping that love and compassion are the depth and meaning of the change we seek in 2018.
Happy New Year, Everyone.